Statement by Robert Young, ICRC on the side-event Children and Armed Conflict

Jun 30, 2011

For United Nations webcast-TV see:

(check against delivery)

Thank you Ambassador, and to the German mission for hosting this timely event.


Attacks on schools and hospitals strike at the heart of International Humanitarian Law.  Sadly, such attacks are something the ICRC sees firsthand in our field operations worldwide. Such attacks can be grave breaches of IHL – war crimes.  It is too rare that those responsible are held accountable.  It is rarer still that their victims of unlawful attacks benefit from reparations.


These attacks put at risk the civilians, including the children, teacher, medical workers and patients, that the ICRC is mandated to protect in our capacity as a neutral independent impartial humanitarian actor.   Such attacks also put our own personnel at risk, limiting our help to those in need of assistance and protection on the frontlines.


Here in New York, the ICRC, granted Permanent Observer status to the UN in 1990, of course carefully maintains its distance - and independence - from the political decisions of the Security Council.   That said, as the guardian of IHL, the ICRC reminds the Council to ensure that its action & decisions are consistent in promoting greater understanding of IHL and respect for it. 


For its part, the ICRC later this year is launching a major global project, Health Care in Danger, which touches on many of the challenges discussed today – more on that in coming months.


As requested, I'll briefly review the fundamentals for the protection of schools and hospitals under IHL.


Legal framework


IHL provides general protection and specific protection.


In terms of General protection there are 4 principles I would like to highlight


1.  Distinction is a core principle of IHL, namely the distinction between protected persons/civilians and objects, on the one hand, and military objectives on the other.

o        A civilian object is anything that is not a military objective

o        A military objective is an object which can make an effective contribution to military action or one which offers definite military advantage by its destruction.

o        Therefore, by nature, schools and hospitals typically are considered civilian objects and should not be attacked. 

o        Nor should civilians who are not taking active part in hostilities, which could include students, education personnel or medical personnel, or patients.

o        However, when a school or hospitals is used for military purposes by one side or the other, they can lose their civilian character - when they do they can be attacked. 

o        In the field, the ICRC sometimes reminds parties to conflict that their use of a school both hampers access of children to schools and poses extra risks to students attending school.  Sometimes they take heed and will leave the school.


o        So that first principle is key: distinction.  Intentionally targeting hospitals and schools is generally a serious violation of IHL.  In addition, no party can use a hospital or schools as a "shield" to hide from attacks – doing this may be a war crime.


2.  Secondly, indiscriminate attacks are also prohibited.  This means attacks that don't adequately distinguish between protected civilians or objects and legitimate military objectives, e.g., the shelling of a whole town, including hospitals and schools, when the enemy is located in just specific parts of the town.


3.  Thirdly, even attacks on legitimate military objectives must respect the principle of proportionality.  "Incidental" harm to civilians and protected civilian objects such as hospitals and schools cannot be disproportionate to the military gain. In plain terms, what is sometimes called "collateral damage" must be limited.  I believe the German expression translates loosely as: don't use a cannon to shoot a sparrow…


4.  Fourthly, IHL requires all parties to take precautions to protect civilians and civilian objects such as hospitals and schools.  For example, attackers must take precautions in their targeting, including issuing warnings in some cases.  Defending forces may need to evacuate civilians who are too close to the action.


In short, IHL generally prohibits attacks on civilian objects such as hospitals and schools, and the people in them.


Let me say a few words now on specific protection under IHL:


IHL also includes some specific rules for hospitals and medical personnel.  These rules reinforce the general rules just cited, eliminating any possible uncertainty.  These well-known and historic rules date back to the original Geneva Convention of 1864 which specifically protected those who help the wounded on the battlefield.


For example, there are detailed rules in IHL about how hospitals can be identified, using the Red Cross or Red Crescent emblem.  Just to be clear, hospitals are protected whether or not the emblems are displayed.


Some IHL provisions also refer to education facilities as protected civilian objects.


It is worth underlining here that IHL does not seek to establish a hierarchy of protected persons or objects.  Rather, specific rules are intended to eliminate uncertainty, for example, that a medic from an enemy army is not a target.    So that medic is entitled to protection, just like a wounded soldier.  All are protected under the law, just as a school and a hospital and a family's home are all protected civilian objects.




To conclude, IHL provides clear, sufficient, strong rules to protect schools & hospitals from attack.   IHL also protects the people who serve in them and who are served by them.


The challenge remains to ensure better – and more consistent - respect for all these rules.  The Council has an important role to play in this regard.    Through its actions and decisions it can reinforce the well-established and widely accepted IHL rules through a constant and consistent approach to their invocation, application and in cases of violations.


The ICRC stands ready to work with all concerned to ensure better respect for these rules and better protection for children in armed conflict.  


Thank you.

© GermanyUN 6 ICRC